Parent Lake from Our Campsite

It was my son Matt’s idea. The father of three, a guy who’s on the cusp of forty, Matt, along with his three younger brothers, grew up canoeing the BWCA with his mother and I as a family. Some of those trips were wonderful excursions into wilderness. A few, including the paddle where it rained two of the four days we spent on Sawbill Lake and then decided to switch to blizzard conditions, our K-Mart tents leaking like sieves, our sleeping bags sodden, were memorable but for the wrong reasons.

Our Tents at Our Campsite

Last year, Matt, me, and his eldest son Adrien canoed Brule Lake, the lake where I learned to paddle when I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 67 from Piedmont Heights. We had a pretty good family bonding experience last year on Brule despite no walleyes, high winds, big waves, and nearly constant drizzle. Adrien was a trouper in the canoe and caught his share of smallmouth bass so I wasn’t worried about taking him back into wilderness. But I suggested that Matt pull a permit for Hog Creek, which leads into Perent Lake, a reliable walleye lake, in hopes avoiding weather on big water. Matt agreed and pulled the permit. Then things got interesting.

“Avery wants to go with us,” Matt said over the phone a few weeks before our trip.

I thought about the problems taking a high-energy-four-year-old would mean. First, we couldn’t possible pack two adults and two kids into one canoe along with food, tents, fishing equipment, and gear for three nights and four days in the woods. Which meant either finding another adult to accompany us, trying out Adrien as the bow paddler in Matt’s canoe, with Avery duffing. But we were weeks away from the trip and there was no chance we’d find another canoeist to join us. Jack, my youngest son, an Eagle Scout and nearly 22, would have been the logical choice. Or my wife, René. But both of them are still working and weren’t available.

“I’ll have to kayak and you and Adrien and Avery can use the Old Town,” I said, thinking that the Coleman, our other paddling canoe, was too small for the gear we’d need if we added a kid.

“OK.”

The second problem was, well, pretty obvious. Like I said, Avery is high energy. Not that his older brother is lethargic. Adrien is plenty active in his own right. And the two of them together? They brawl and argue and carry on just like you’d expect from brothers three years apart. So I wasn’t concerned about having Avery join our little expedition simply due to his age. With his personality, I was worried he’d be bored silly while his brother and dad canoed Hog Creek’s winding, narrow course into Perent, a trip that usually takes two to three hours. There’s a ninety degree turn nearly every hundred yards, making Hog Creek laborious. And I was also concerned that the little guy would not take to sitting in the bottom of the Old Town as Matt and I paddled around the lake searching for walleye.

The third issue didn’t involve the kids or Matt directly. It was me. While I’ve kayaked on the Cloquet River, a wide, fairly flat, piece of water from my house to Bowman Lake, I’ve never taken a kayak into the BWCA. My skills in such a narrow, tippy, craft are rudimentary, which caused me brief concern.

What the hell, I thought. No time like retirement to learn something new.

I spent the better part of the Wednesday before we left packing our gear and food. On Monday, Adrien and I’d gone into town to shop from the menu I’d created. We picked up food and supplies at Gander Outdoors and Cub Foods. After we completed our mission, we came back to the house and sorted the food: nearly all dried and dehydrated with the exception of some organic mandarin oranges I’d added as fresh fruit. That turned out to be a mistake: the oranges didn’t last a day before they started to sprout mold. We never ate a one. Anyway. After Adrien and I separated the food into meals, I packed everything in black plastic garbage bags and stuffed my dad’s old Duluth Pack (the best inheritance a son could ever hope for!) with food. Then I wandered out to the garage and dug through our camping bin and on the shelves for all of the cooking and other items we’d need for our journey: my two-person Alps tent; headlamp; cook kit and folding frying pan and sporks and plastic utensil set; battery powered lantern; camping hatchet; para cord; and two-burner propane Coleman and LP fuel. All of that gear was stuffed into an old Army duffle given to me with a smile by some supply grunt at Ft. Dix back in 1981 when I enlisted. I also packed my own Duluth Pack (a Christmas gift from Dad three decades ago: they really are built to last a lifetime!) with my clothes, rain gear, my tent, ThermaRest pad, a couple issues of The Sun magazine and a Sam Cook essay collection. I would eventually read the magazines in my tent at night by the light of a headlamp suspended from the tent’s ceiling. But the Cook? Never got to it.

Wednesday after packing the duffle and Duluth Packs, I walked outside, the day waning, put the hitch on my Jeep Grand Cherokee, drove across the lawn, connected my aluminum trailer, drove to the canoe rack next to the river, loaded my 10′ piece of crap SunDolphin fishing kayak in the trailer, hoisted the way-too heavy 18′ Old Town Discovery onto the Jeep’s roof rack, fastened the canoe and kayak down, drove back across the lawn, and parked the Jeep next to the garage. I loaded the duffle. the packs, my soft-sided tackle box, rod tube, worm buckets, life jackets, and paddles into the rear of the Jeep, leaving the back rope holding the canoe loose to allow Matt to load his gear in the morning.

I’ll stop here to clear up the title of this essay. My wife loves that goofy app, JibJab, where you take head shots of yourself and others and add them to music to create a silly video. She’s infected all three of Matt’s kids, including Ari, the youngest and the only girl, with her nonsense. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve taken to calling Adrien and Avery “JibJabbers” for their antics. And when they are out of line, I’ll yell “Quit yer JibJabbing.” That’s what the title is trying to reflect: the likelihood our canoe trip would end up emulating those stupid videos. In some ways, it did …

Matt and the boys made it to the house on Thursday morning right on time. We loaded up and hit the road. After a brief stop in Two Harbors, we turned north on Highway No. 2, towards the Isabella Ranger Station to pick up our permit. Except …

“I thought the Ranger station was in this building.”

We made it to Isabella, after only a minor detour due to Grandfatherly misdirection, well before 1:00pm. My thought was, I wanted to be on Hog Creek no later than 1:30 or so, giving us plenty of daylight to negotiate that meander, get into Perent, find a campsite, and set up camp. Nice plan, right?

“It was,” Matt said.

We spent time driving around Isabella. Not a lot of time, you understand, since it’s just a hamlet in the middle of nowhere.

“What’s your receipt say as to where you’re supposed to pick up the permit?’

The Jeep grew quiet.

“Matt?”

“It says permit pick-up is at the Tofte Ranger station.”

Matt called Tofte and found out they were open until 4:30pm. We had plenty of time, given it was an hour drive and not yet two, to pick up the permit. Still. There was a lot of father son discussion about reading the fine print before setting out on a wild goose chase. But, we got to Tofte, watched the obligatory BWCA video with the boys, got our permit and directions how to access Hog Creek via the back roads.

Hog Creek Portage Pond
Matt and the Boys on Hog Creek.

We made it to the landing by 3:30. I was concerned we’d left ourselves precious little daylight to find a campsite, set up, and cook dinner. Turned out my assessment of the situation was correct. And that was before we encountered another unexpected delay.

“Matt, do you have your rods?” I asked as we paddled a wide stretch of the creek close to its confluence with Perent Lake.

“I thought you grabbed them,” Matt said.

“No, I’m not in charge of your shit, Matt,” I said, in a less than grandfatherly tone.

“You told me to move them, when they were resting next to the packs.”

“That’s because I didn’t want them to get busted. But I never loaded them in your canoe and they’re not in the kayak.”

Understand: by this time we’d climbed over three beaver dams and were two-thirds of the way down the creek. There was little choice: I had one extra rod in my tube. Fine for Matt but the kids wouldn’t be able to fish.

“I’ll go back. You keep paddling. Stay at the mouth when you hit the lake so I can find you.”

As I headed back upstream, the modest current a non-factor, I was pretty pissed off. The rods weren’t left at the portage, a short jaunt from the landing. They were all the way back at the landing, where we started. Which meant that, in addition to climbing over at least one of the three dams, I’d have to unload the gear in the kayak (Matt’s and the kids’ extra stuff), and portage not once, but twice. I’m never gonna do this again, I thought as my shoulders throbbed and my legs tightened when I pressed my feet into the SunDolphin’s foot pegs. But, despite adding at least another hour and a half to the journey (I paddled like mad), and making nearly three complete trips up and down Hog Creek, when I met up with my son and grandsons, the tempest had passed. Exhaustion will do that to a guy.

Things didn’t get easier.

“What about that campsite?” I asked as we paddled into the lake.

“No good. I let the kids out there to explore. It’s no good. All lilly pads. No place to swim.”

We pushed on, following the dots on my 1987 McKenzie Map (OK, I take responsibility for using a map older than three of my kids!), but finding every campsite either no longer in existence (happened once) or already taken (happened about a half-dozen times). It was after seven, the sun completely gone, night encroaching, when I finally had had enough: “Let’s go back to that first campsite and hope it’s not taken.”

Turns out, yes, there appeared to be no place for the kids to swim given the entrance to the site was clogged with weeds but, in fact, the campsite itself was perfect. Plenty of space for three or four tents. Ample firewood. Decent pit toilet. Fairly level rocks for cooking and storing pots and pans. “Matt, what is wrong with you?”

“What?”

“You said this campsite stunk. It’s perfect, except for the weeds. We paddled all the way around the lake when we could have been here, setting up, having dinner.”

“I only said there was no place for the kids to swim.”

“That’s not what you said..”

By the time our tents were pitched and camp was set up, it was too late for dinner so we gobbled some jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars and called it a night.

Despite a few minor meltdowns by the littlest JibJabber, and a fright put into the older JibJabber when Matt and I insisted he turn off his headlamp to watch a satellite cross the starry night sky, the kids did swell over the span of four days in the forest. However, Avery did show the attention span of a typical four year old: “When are we going fishing?” he’d ask as we did dishes or made supper or whatever. Then, as soon as we were on the water, him not catching fish (you need to keep your line in the water to catch anything!), it was “This is boring. When are we going back to camp?” And so it went.

Adrien turned out to be our salvation. Oh, Matt and I caught small walleye and some small pike. I added a rock bass and a perch to the mix. None of them were big enough to keep for supper until Adrien brought in a nice 15″ walleye, followed by its smaller sister or brother. Matt then caught a couple about the same size, and we had fish for Saturday night supper!

Adrien accompanied me when I, very apologetically, filleted the four walleye we kept. Because we didn’t want to attract bears, we canoed a short distance away from camp, cleaned the fish, deposited the guts and leavings beneath leaves and branches, and brought back a zip lock of fairly boneless fillets. Given my meager fish cleaning skills, there were complaints about a bone or two being encountered during dinner. Not from my son, mind you, but from the JibJabbers.

Gramps and Adrien Coming Back with Fillets
Fishing Buddies
Fresh Walleye and Spanish Rice for Dinner
Nightfall in Camp

We never saw moose despite being in the most moosey of places. But there was ample evidence, in the form of old bones from what was likely an old wolf kill, that moose had been around. What we did witness, what thrilled the boys as we floated on the black water of Perent Lake in search of fish beneath a clear, though pre-autumnal, sky was a raft of red-headed mergansers-at least twenty strong, a chorus of loons, and most importantly, a host of bald eagles screaming and chirping from towering white pines next to our campsite.

One of Our Feathered Friends

The boys watched gape-mouthed as a brilliantly white headed raptor dove from the pinnacle of the sky, dipped its talons just below the lake’s rippling surface, snatched a fish, and found a tree in which to eat its lunch. It was a Marlin Perkins’ moment, one that Adrien, at seven, will always remember. One that, when he sees photos of the trip, Avery might also recall as he ages.

There was one night, when Matt and the boys were tucked in their sleeping bags in their tent, when the devil in the boy roared. Inexplicably, Avery decided that bedtime was as good as any for a meltdown. Man, the patience my son showed while Avery screamed and screamed and screamed, wailing as if somewhere had lit his socks on fire. I never had that measure of resolve when rearing my boys. If one of them engaged in such shenanigans, for better or for worse, he’d have been cuffed about the noggin’! Whether that worked, as parental redirection, any better than simply, as Matt did, waiting it out, well, I’ll leave it to Matt’s wife, the psychologist in the family! Besides, I’d been foresighted enough to pack earplugs in my ditty bag. So, when Avery’s nighttime opera began, I simply plugged in, read The Sun, and tuned out.

After our daily, morning fishing excursions (we ended up doing alright, boating somewhere around thirty fish, mostly walleye but none bigger than Adrien’s), we’d head back to camp, eat our PB& J pita sandwiches, jerky, trail mix, and breakfast bars, sip Kool Aid, and nap. My sons had all pitched in at Christmas and bought me a pretty neat Nest hammock, an offering from the National Parks Association (part of the purchase price goes to maintaining America’s “Best Idea”), which caused me, when I opened the package next to the tree, to say something like, “Oh, how nice.” And display a faux smile that would make a beauty pageant contestant proud. But you know what? I was wrong. What a wondrous nap one can take in a Nest, where you can draw loose fabric around you as if in a cocoon, and sleep the sleep of angels. Thanks, boys! And as you can see, Adrien also enjoyed the peace of swinging in the wilderness breeze to the sounds of loons trilling in the near distance.

Sunset on Perent

When we packed up Sunday morning, after a breakfast of stick-to-your-ribs maple and brown sugar steel-cut oatmeal (complete with sugar sprinkles because boys can always use more sugar!), I dreaded the trip back up Hog Creek. I was right to fret. I managed to flip my kayak trying to help the overloaded Discovery over the first dam. It wasn’t bad enough I flipped: I had an audience. I filled the SunDolphin from aft to bow with water and when the guys watching my antics from two canoes offered their assistance, I did what any red-blooded male would do: I declined. They pushed on and I lifted a boat heavy with several hundred pounds of water over my head and held it there, waiting for the water to drain. Matt had left me standing in waist deep water, struggling with the kayak. He apparently didn’t want to be associated with an idiot who can’t get out of a boat without tipping. But it got worse.

At the next dam, with Matt nowhere to be seen, but the same guys struggling over the second obstacle, I flipped ‘er again. This time, not much water got in but I was drenched: any part of me that had been dry after the first dunking, well, it was soaked. Luckily, my iPhone was in an Otter Box and secure from water. My wallet, however, was another matter. It was at the second dam that I made a discovery that really topped it all: I’d lost the tip to Avery’s Zebco rod back at the first beaver dam. I got back in the SunDolphin, not swearing but laughing like a fool at my stupidity, and paddled downstream. At the dam, I searched and searched until, just as I was ready to give up and leave, I spotted the teensiest bit of rod tip sitting upright in the cattails.

At the last dam, I flipped ‘er again. This time, two other guys, guys I’d not seen before, were at the dam, trying to coax their very expensive Kevlar Wenonah over the barrier. They too asked if they could help. I again declined.

I met up with Matt and the boys at the portage, which, given there were four other canoes vying for space, was pretty crowded. It was there that one of the guys who’d offered me aid at the last dam asked me, “Hey, aren’t you Mark?” Turns out my last debacle had been witnessed by friends of my son Chris: guys who’d taken my Old Town into the BWCA a time or two with my third son. Shit!

Thankfully I wasn’t alone in my ineptitude. After the other parties cleared the portage, we lugged our stuff across the trail for the final paddle. As Adrien and I moved packs into position to load the canoe, Matt brought the Old Town close to shore, and, alone in the canoe and on flat water, my son ended up taking a well-needed bath.

“Must be a Munger thing,” I said as Matt stood up, waist deep in cold water, the humor of the moment seemingly unappreciated.

Gramps and Adrien Mulling Over Life

Thing is, we all survived. Memories were made. And the JibJabbers? They learned a bit about why their grandfather isn’t a fan of copper being mined next door to God’s wilderness.

Mark

Peace.

Leaving Perent Lake but Ready for Another Paddling Adventure
Avery and the Jeep in Tofte on the Way Home.
A Tired JibJabber

Peace.

Mark

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